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Ogata appeals to combatants in Zaire to spare refugees and civilians

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Ogata appeals to combatants in Zaire to spare refugees and civilians

26 October 1996

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees called Sunday on combatants in eastern Zaire to stop attacking refugees and civilians and to open humanitarian corridors for those caught in the fighting.

"I have received reports from UNHCR's field officers that our worst fears are again upon us. Fighting has spread to the camps in the Goma region and refugees are on the move in the area," High Commissioner Sadako Ogata said in a statement

"What hurts me most are reports that women and children are again caught in this terrible tragedy. The first refugees to reach the hospital in Goma after the attacks this weekend were 36 women and children - all of them suffering from shrapnel wounds. There was one report of a woman giving birth along the road to Goma," Ogata said.

"We are now facing a situation similar to what we had in July 1994 when the Rwandan refugees first arrived in Goma. What's worse, relief workers now are at risk, making it more difficult for us. A catastrophe greater than the one we knew in 1994 is what worries me most.

"I appeal to the combatants: please spare the refugees and local populations. While I have stressed that UNHCR will continue to help refugees wherever they are in Zaire, I also urge officials in the region to open humanitarian corridors for the civilians and the safe passage of the refugees wishing to return home to Rwanda and we will do everything to help them."

Kibumba camp, the second largest in the Goma region, was hit by a barrage of artillery and mortar fire between 9 p.m. Friday and 6 a.m. Saturday, forcing its 194,000 Rwandan refugees to flee. Joining them was about 20,000 Zairians from a nearby village. Kibumba is located 25 kms north of Goma.

More than 4,000 Rwandan refugees and Zairians were reported to have entered Rwanda through Mutura, which faces Kibumba. UNHCR has dispatched 30 trucks and buses to transport the arrivals to a transit centre in nearby Gisenyi, where a two-month food ration will be given to them before they are transported to their home communes.

About 20,000 of the Kibumba refugees have arrived in Mugunga and Lac Vert camps in western Goma, where medical facilities and water tankers have been brought to help them. UNHCR is also assisting the displaced Zairians.

At least four refugees were confirmed to have died and another 100 wounded in the attack on Kibumba. One mortar round hit the Kibumba hospital. Eyewitnesses reported many more refugees died in Kibumba, but this could not be confirmed immediately.

In Katale camp, 35 kms farther north of Kibumba, an attack by armed men Saturday night left one Zairian soldier dead and three others wounded. Katale, with 202,000 refugees, is the biggest camp in eastern Zaire, home to one million of the 1.6 million Rwandan refugees in the Great Lakes region. Goma alone has 715,000 Rwandan refugees.

UNHCR's local staff in the Uvira and Bukavu regions report continuing fighting. In Bukavu, a camp just north of the town was reported burning on Sunday. At Makobla village in the outskirts of Uvira, a local staff member said refugees and displaced people badly need food and medicine.

Fighting over a broad area in eastern Zaire has prevented refugees from moving toward the Rwandan and Burundi frontiers, which are officially closed.